The tying of a headscarf in the late 1890’s so that it was flat on the head and knotted at the back eventually proved to be a major problem for the Pearl Milling Company—creator of the world’s first ready mix—and for my grandmother as well. She viewed headscarves as a symbol of rural Southern life. More about both later.
Lore has it that Christian Rutt of Pearl Milling attended a minstrel show where he saw Billy Kersands (1842-1915), the most popular African American minstrel talent of his time, perform his version of the song “Aunt Jemima.” The custom during the performance was to have men, some Black, some white, dress as a Black female, Aunt Jemima, and wear red headscarves and aprons. Kersands was born into slavery in 1842 and eventually was liberated into the segregated South in his early twenties, where he was celebrated for his performances in Georgia. He would open his extraordinarily wide mouth, for which he was famous and sing:
My old missus promised me,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh, oh, oh,
When she died she’d set me free.
On the Saturdays or Sundays when my grandmother, Miss Dolly, opened the box of ready mix, I’m not sure if she was aware of the history of Billy Kersands. From the universe of ready mix available in the mid twentieth century, when my older sister and I spent ten years living with her, she chose Aunt Jemima. She also bought the syrup. Thus, my sister and I saw the heavyset, smiling Black woman with the red and white headscarf on both box and plastic bottle representing for us the easy-paced weekend mornings. Grandmom mixed the batter she then deposited in spoonfuls into the black wrought iron skillet where the oval batter in the hot oil, with small bubbles on top, began their transition to solid pancakes.
Rutt and his business partner, Charles Underwood were so inspired by Kersands’s performance in 1889 that they trademarked the Aunt Jemima image for their company. Their ownership lasted but a year, perhaps because Rutt, a writer at the core of his being, was really not much of a businessman.
My sister and I lived with my grandmother and step-grandfather for ten years in the bottom level of a rented Castilian-style duplex in Los Angeles with the spacious kitchen and the additional space we called the breakfast room that actually served as the dining area for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With its semi-circular shape, the breakfast room had three large windows revealing first the proximity and loftiness of the fructiferous backyard lemon tree and then, the large backyard beyond that held not only our dog but the dog of the Black owners of the building as well. The owners of the building and the people to whom my grandmother and step-grandfather paid the rent were proud African Americans in the then predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles in which Blacks felt comfortable to integrate during the mid-1960s. Also from the breakfast room windows we could see the wooden fence separating the bordering property which was even more abundantly verdant with avocado, plum, and orange trees stretching up to the LA sun. The occupant of the neighboring house was my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Tillie, who like my grandmother, had migrated to Los Angeles from Memphis.
Billy Kersands was a contemporary of my grandmother’s father, Doc Benton, who lived from 1866 to 1934. His exact birthplace is not known, but he did travel extensively in Georgia performing shows during his youth. Doc Benton was born in Mississippi and then migrated with his wife to Memphis. My grandmother was no lightweight in Black Migration since she was born in Memphis, left for Chicago, and finally, settled here in Los Angeles, where she could make the simple trek from her home to the supermarket to buy premixed pancake flour and the sweet syrup with the smiling Black lady under a red and white headscarf.
In the kitchen, the mixing of the ingredients was quite simple—the Aunt Jemima mix, eggs, and water. Not so simple was my grandmother raising her daughter’s two kids for ten years, her daughter having gone off to San Francisco to experience the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies. Not so simple were the annual pilgrimages to the discount stores to buy back-to-school clothes, the weekly washings of those same clothes in the wash machine in the duplex, and the hanging of them on the clotheslines planted in the grass, which was the duty of my sister and myself in the backyard visible from the semi-circular breakfast room. Nor simple was the caring for the hair which my grandmother’s generation believed should be tamed. Thus, her washings of my hair and my sister’s in that same kitchen sink we kids had to clean up after the pancake preparation. For hair pressing I placed a stool in the middle of the floor of the spacious kitchen where I sat as my grandmother went back and forth to the stove to retrieve the hot comb that straightened my hair into Western submission—my grandmother being a believer in neither Afro hair nor headscarves, with the latter being a symbol of the servitude of Black women to white dominance in the South.
Randolph Truett Davis purchased the company in 1890 and named it after himself. Davis focused on vivid innovation with the hiring of Nancy Green, who was born into slavery in 1834 in Kentucky, to be the company’s spokesperson. This began the association between the pancake mix and the lasting image of an actual Black woman, domestic in character, wearing a headscarf and an apron, and appearing to be at-the-ready for society’s catering needs. Following in the path of Kersands, Nancy Green took on this role full time for the rest of her life.
My grandmother, Miss Dolly, was the youngest of eleven children. She was at-the-ready to prepare meals for her husband, my sister, and me. Her domestic aptitude did not conform to any stereotype historicized by the dominant culture to misrepresent how a people it objectifies supposedly operates, but it was based on her keen sense of duty and an urgency to get a job done once she started it. She was so devoted to the labor of rearing the two of us that the line between grandmother and mom became invisible. So when my mother came to visit us with her odd gifts of sweaters or occasional souvenirs showing the Golden Gate Bridge and gave us bear hugs as she cascaded onto the bed with one of us in her arms, I wasn’t certain if she was another big sister or my mom.
For my grandmother, the ready mix was a needed addition to her life since she worked outside of the home. And in the Los Angeles of that era such working outside the home for a Black woman of my grandmother’s generation and circumstances meant cleaning the homes of white women of wealth and taking care of their kids before coming home to take care of the two kids of her at-that-time wayward and rebellious daughter. Thus, the ready mix. And let’s not forget that Miss Dolly was the last child of eleven kids and as such, she knew fewer of the recipes and cooking secrets of her own mom, Lettie Bernett Benton (1873-1955). The six older daughters acquired, each to her ability, those ancestral recipes that Big Mama Lettie had prepared in both Mississippi and Tennessee. And my grandmother, who left Memphis for Chicago at least twenty years before her mom passed, worked factory jobs in that cold Midwest city where the preparation of slow-cooked Southern meals would not have been easy for a single mom of two. Still, grandmother was a champion in Southern cooking. She could prepare greens, hot-water cornbread, and mac and cheese comparable to many a chef of a soul food restaurant. But the innovative flair in that cooking was the reserve of Auntie Tillie who served as holiday chef for our small Los Angeles family and who was celebrated for her Christmas meals which she started two weeks before the actual holiday and would cook, bake, freeze, and reheat.
When R.T. Davis met Nancy Green, he hired her as a representative of Aunt Jemima to help promote the ready mix. Davis gave Nancy Green a lifetime contract which required that she be present at promotional displays and expositions. She was the company’s first female image of Aunt Jemima and, as was the custom, she donned an apron and the characteristic headscarf. Nancy Green worked as Aunt Jemima from 1890 to 1923 when she died in a freak car accident in Chicago.
My grandmother was a mere five years old in 1923 and that being the case, she had not yet left Memphis for Chicago, and when she did leave, she migrated alone, leaving her siblings behind. Once she arrived in that industrial city of frigid winters, she probably had nieces and nephews she could stay with because there were a few members of the Benton family there. My grandmother would have had to rely on sheer determination to endure the environment of Chicago.
Nancy Green, as the embodiment of Aunt Jemima, was so successful in promoting the brand and the image of the scarved Black woman that Davis changed the name of the company from Davis Milling Company to Aunt Jemima Mills. The company kept that name even after Davis sold his enterprise to the Quaker Oats Company in 1926—which went on to hire a series of women to portray Aunt Jemima. The last was Aylene Lewis who represented the Black mammy figure in Southern California at the Aunt Jemima Restaurant in Disneyland, which bore the trademark name until 1970.
It’s essential to watch as the bubbles on the pancakes form in the hot griddle. Their formation is a clue as to when it is time to flip the pancake over to the other side to let it brown. My grandmother would also slide the spatula under the pancake and lift it slightly to see the underside and to measure the degree of brownness it had reached. There were occasions when my grandmother used the competing brand of ready mix instead of the venerable Aunt Jemima flour—due to skepticism that Aunt Jemima was the savior of all things culinary for the companies. Aunt Jemima was no savior and indeed she proved to be an impediment to progress as the awakening of Black consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s among segregated Blacks grew to fruition. One result, regarding style, was the freeing of hair from all restraints so the norm for Black men and women soon became the large afro hairstyle. It was in this cultural milieu that activists declared the image of Aunt Jemima was regressive .
That and the tying of the headscarf so it was knotted in the back and laying flat on the head in European fashion. The headscarf on the Aunt Jemima box was a fundamental problem because if indeed “turbans are the heels of Africa,” the headscarf was pointed in the completely wrong direction. During enslavement African American women were made to wear headscarves flat on the head in the European fashion. If Queen Elizabeth and Grace Kelly are the norm, European women fold a square scarf into a triangular shape, place it on their head in the direction their hair grows, and tie it under the chin or behind the head. The African turban and head wrapping in Western Africa is based on using a rectilinear fabric, wrapping it upward and placing the knot at the top of the head like a crown since African hair grows upward. If not placed at the top, the knot is at least placed on the side. The use of the headwrap for women in sub-Saharan Africa began as early as the 1700’s. In a country as culturally diverse as Nigeria, for example, the headwrap contains several markers. The print of the fabric can specify ethnicity and region while the tying of the headwrap can communicate religious affiliation, age, marital status, and social class.
If there had been a TV series similar to Sex and the City but based on African women from the continent or conscious Black women from the Black Diaspora, the main character would have been obsessed not with stiletto heels and red bottom shoes but with headwraps in their many manifestations. She would scour events where headwraps are sold, such as African fashion shows and cultural street festivals. She’d learn the names for the different African fabrics and how the Dutch introduced wax print to West Africa which the West Africans adopted as their own and how some European and African countries refer to the same fabric as wax fabric and others as Ankara fabric. Also, the main character, a Black Carrie Bradshaw, would most likely go to African-inspired clothing stores or watch hours of YouTube tutorials to learn the myriad of ways to tie African headwraps.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that with the rise of the Civil Rights, Black Liberation, and Women’s Rights movements of the 1960s, when my mom was becoming her freer self in San Francisco, the Quaker Oats Company in 1968 rebranded its products by having the headscarf removed from the head of Aunt Jemima. None of that changed my grandmother’s buying habits concerning pancake ready mix and syrup. She continued to buy Aunt Jemima flour, or sometimes a competing brand’s ready mix, but she always bought the sweet Aunt Jemima syrup that we kids preferred. She continued cooking the weekend breakfasts which were extra special because she had time to work in the spacious kitchen and prepare our plates which my sister and I carried to the oval breakfast room that looked out not only to the backyard of clothes-hanging labor but to the freedom of play where we would put on our metal skates that we latched and then strapped onto tennis shoes to skate around in circle after circle on the concrete section of the backyard.
Aunt Jemima became more liberated because the Quaker Oats Company removed her headscarf. The next and current owner of the Aunt Jemima brand, PepsiCo, followed the lead of Quaker Oats with the scarf-less female. Instead of removing the headscarf, both Quaker Oats and PepsiCo might have had it tied in the appropriate African fashion. As for myself, I would eventually have my years of taking school photos, not in the old-fashioned press-and-curl that conformed to Western standards of how hair should look and which my grandmother so painstakingly prepared at the stove where she also made pancakes, but in the big afros of the time, as worn by my rebellious mom, and that Grandmom would help me style. I am proof that my hair does not have to be tamed down because, in its resplendent grandeur, it reaches up to the sun the way African hair does, the way African headwraps do, to follow not just custom, but nature.
Born in Los Angeles, Audrey Shipp is an essayist and sometime poet whose most recent writing has been published in Litro Magazine USA, A Gathering Together, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. Her bilingual poetry appeared in the Americas Review (Arte-Publico Press), which was formerly published by the University of Houston. She holds a BA in English from UCLA and an MA in English from California State University, Los Angeles. She teaches English and ESL at a public high school in Los Angeles.